marlene mountain
from the mountain
february 1978

form follows satori

Ideally, the Western haiku poet experiences satori, or moment of oneness, and finds the form which best expresses it. 1 The true satori is perhaps the most important part of the process. Magazines and books are full of would-be haiku which were not inspired, suggesting that form itself does not produce haiku. As Western poets continue to study the Japanese masters they will better understand satori, but, eventually, they must turn to themselves. Form, too, must be their responsibility.

The early Western haiku poets, in trying to imitate, emulate, and/or understand haiku, borrowed certain conventions from the Japanese. In spite of the language differences, the convention of seventeen syllables, which had already broken down in Japan, was adopted. Apparently little consideration was given to kireji, or 'cutting words,' such as kana, keri, and ya which give mood and space but have no equivalent in English. The deletion of these words should have suggested a shorter haiku, perhaps one of fifteen syllables. Overlooking the fact that Japanese haiku is written in one line, the Western poets adopted the appearance of certain English translations by dividing the poem into three lines. So, in a sense, Western haiku was stuck with an almost superficially chosen form. No matter what the experience, it was to be 'worked at' until it fit into a pattern of seventeen syllables divided into three lines.

However, within this form many fine haiku were written. The better poets were able to bring to haiku the natural rhythms of the English language. For a time the main interest for the haiku critic was determining the good 5-7-5 from the passable 5-7-5 from the bad 5-7-5. 2

During this time the poets began modernizing their subject matter. They began looking more closely at nature. Fewer Japanese dai, or 'seasonal references,' were used. The withered moor became the desert, the prairie, the city. The cherry blossoms became the violet, the cactus, the apple blossoms.

Eventually strict adherence to syllable counting eroded as the language differences became more apparent. Many poets began tightening up their haiku while retaining the 'short-long-short' look. The complete sentence haiku became more fragmentary, coming closer to a 'wordless poem.'

Haiku began experiencing a rebirth--and with many more pains than its original birth into Western culture. Needless to say, there were quarrels among the poets. No longer was one a good, passable or bad 5-7-5er, but a traditionalist or a modern radical. Those on the conservative side cited Basho's haiku to expound form. Those on the modern side cited Shiki's haiku to expound change. The 'debates' often disintegrated: 'you don't have enough words (thoughts) in your three lines' or 'you have too many words (thoughts) in your three lines.'

More importantly, haiku was beginning to be seen as an organic art. As an art which evolved with its culture and its times. Though this was not the popular concept, there were enough poets believing in it to make it happen. These poets acknowledged the origin of haiku, but did not feel limited by it.

Today, the 'new' haiku looks and reads differently: lines staggered from the margin, words set off from each other, space as punctuation. There are four-line haiku. There are vertical haiku and horizontal haiku. There are few-word haiku and one-word haiku. There are pattern (or concrete) haiku. And while there is no desire to emulate kanji, or Chinese ideographs, there are word and letter pictures. Haiku for the eye is just beginning.

No longer can Western haiku be stereotyped as 'that Japanese seventeen-syllable poem' or 'that 5-7-5 poem' or even 'that short-long-short poem.' The literary critic who assumes that haiku is three lines will now be obliged to read each poem to determine whether it is a haiku.

Perhaps, today, there is no one haiku form capable of embracing the haiku spirit.

That there are a variety of haiku forms available does not mean that poets--even the most radical--will want to give up the three-line haiku. Of course, this tradition will continue. However, poets no doubt will find that because other forms exist, often they can better realize and express each satori. In other words, as poets become familiar with reading and seeing other forms, they will find that some satori are best expressed in one manner and other satori in another. Perhaps, the seventeen-syllable haiku, which was over-burdened by forcing all satori into it, can now re-emerge as the finely crafted poem it was conceived to be.

Those exploring the relatively new Western one-line haiku hopefully will avoid the pitfalls of the past by not forcing arbitrary rules upon it. At this early stage in its development even meaningful rules can be destructive. This is not to suggest that haiku is without discipline. On the contrary, the discipline of haiku is in each poet's striving to be an empty vessel through which the spirit of oneness (the nature of haiku) can flow. The poet ought equally strive to be an empty vessel for form.

This is an exciting time to be involved in Western haiku. 3 Much is happening. Scattered here and there are persons interested in finding out what form is and what it can be. Dissatisfaction with a preconceived form is being replaced by a genuine interest in being open. Perhaps this is another age of Basho, i.e., another age of discovery.

1 Some poets may prefer other terms, such as 'spiritual,' or 'esthetic' moment, and quite often form and content are conceived simultaneously. 2 There were also attempts to differentiate haiku from senryu. 3 The one sad note in 1978 is the absence of some of the poets who were largely responsible for the development of the new haiku. Perhaps there are good reasons: magazines have come and gone, articles stressing the old rhetoric have persisted, and many have continued to write the same bad 'haiku' over and over.